Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

History Revisited - Thomas' death a blow to New England's Aboriginal history

PHOTOGRAPHY PIONEER: Thomas Dick took many photographs of Aborigines in the Hastings Valley in the first decades of the 20th century
The discovery of another collection of Thomas Dick’s Aboriginal photos attracted considerable interest. Oyster grower, naturalist and photographer, Thomas Dick produced 500 photographs of the Hastings Valley that are today seen as works of art.

Thomas Dick’s grandparents settled at Port Macquarie in 1841. Grandfather John was a tanner. Thomas’s father, also John, worked in the family tannery business until taking up one of the first oyster leases on the Hastings River in the 1880s.

Thomas took up his own oyster lease in 1899. Like many at the time, this was the age of the amateur naturalist, he became fascinated by nature. This brought him into contact with the young economic zoologist Theo Roughley who had just started working at the Technological Museum in Sydney and was especially interested in fisheries.

Roughley taught Thomas the rudiments of photography and helped him buy his first camera just before the start of World War One. Thomas became hooked, setting up his own darkroom.

During the working week, Thomas worked his lease, growing and marketing his oysters. Then at the weekend, he explored his interest in natural history and photography, searching for suitable objects and backgrounds. Thomas was clearly knowledgeable, providing information both to Roughley and to Richard Baker, the Technological Museum’s curator.

Thomas is best known now for his Aboriginal photographs. “I set out years ago, he wrote in 1923, “to collect and write the history of these Aborigines, and get together, not only a fine collection of photos, but also a fine collection of implements etc., and …. a remarkable amount of information.”

Thomas’s photos were staged, itself a remarkable feat for he had to persuade his Aboriginal models to remove clothing and pose undertaking traditional tasks. He built trust, aided in some cases by payment of fees.

The photographs may have been staged, but they were authentic nevertheless. Thomas went into the mountains with the Aborigines, gaining trust and the secrets of their laws, information provided on the basis that it would not be made available until after the death of the informants.

“I was fortunate”, he later recorded, “for some of the old men were most intelligent and they recognised that their race was run, as it were, so they gave me under the conditions named, the history of their race.”

“Now by these means I secured all of the marks on the sacred trees, and their meaning, all of the rules of the ‘Waipara’ or man making ceremony.”

Tragically, Thomas Dick died on his fiftieth birthday in 1927. He had gone to study marine life in one of his favourite rock pools and seems to have been caught by a major wave.

Thomas knew the value of the information he had, but had clearly been struggling to get it down. . “I do not known when I will bring out the work for I am now too much handicapped”, he had written sadly in 1923. In that year, he also resigned as a member of the Royal Society of NSW. There were clearly problems.

With Thomas’s death, we lost access to that past he had learned about, lost the chance to establish a bridge between that past, the present and the future. This loss is particularly great for the Birpai/Biripi people themselves. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 2 December 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

No comments: